Only collaboration and community involvement can solve the problem

It may take a village to raise a child, but it’s going to take an entire city to keep gang activity in Gresham from getting worse.

The idea, presented at a gang summit last week, is to not only use law enforcement but try to keep kids from getting gang-involved in the first place.

Criminal gangs are getting worse in Gresham. For the past 25 years, the city has averaged fewer than three murders per year. But in 2013, there were seven murders in Gresham — one shy of the all-time high — and six were gang-related.

Because gang activity in Gresham has gotten worse in the past few years, the city recently introduced a new collaborative approach at the Gang Enforcement Prevention and Enforcement Summit held May 1 at City Hall and presented a booklet outlining a plan of action.

Speakers at the summit included Mayor Shane Bemis; Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger; Joe Walsh, the city’s gang prevention policy adviser; Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill; Traci Rose of Boys & Girls Clubs; and Joe McFerrin, CEO of Portland Opportunities and Industrialization Center (POIC).

Gang activity is everywhere in Gresham, Junginger said.

“We have gang activity not just in Rockwood, but it’s permeated from north to south and from east to west,” he said.

Gangs used to be defined by their turf, he said, but those territorial lines are gone and gangs are mobile, mostly using public transportation.

“It’s all about drugs and the narcotics trade and human trafficking,” he said.

There are 450 documented gang members in Gresham from 30 different sets, he said. The summit plan states that for each of those documented members, the East Metro Gang Enforcement Team estimates an additional three to five gang members, for a total gang population in East County from 1,350 to 2,250.

Last year, Gresham’s Gang Unit had nearly 1,600 contacts with criminal street gangs, documented 190 new members and made 123 felony gang arrests, according to a press release on the summit.

“Our gang officers are great at their jobs,” Junginger said. “But they can’t do it alone. Enforcement is important, but not a complete answer. We’ve all got to do our part to make sure youth have positive options that make gangs less attractive.”

The police department has made great strides in combating gang activity, but it can’t do it alone, Bemis said.

“While no urban community can fully eliminate the threat gangs pose, our intention is to be as coordinated and effective in our joint approach as possible,” he said. “The partners involved in this plan are critical to achieving success, and our collective approach is the only productive way to address these issues head-on.”

Underhill talked about the role of the Rosewood/Rockwood Enrichment Neighborhood Enforcement Work Group (RENEW) in combating gangs but said community support is necessary for it to succeed.

McFerrin talked about his facility, which reconnects at-risk youth affected by “poverty, family instability and homelessness with education and career training programs designed to meet their unique needs.”

Since 2012, POIC has run Rosemary Anderson High School at Southeast 182nd Avenue and Division Street, offering a high school education and “wrap-around services” to 125 young people primarily from the Centennial and Gresham-Barlow school districts, McFerrin said.

Boys & Girls Clubs also tries to steer kids in the right direction so they won’t get involved in gangs, Rose said.

“Most of our clubs are in areas of high youth violence and kids performing below their capabilities,” she said. “Fifteen million kids go unsupervised after school and three out of 10 do not graduate.”

Boys & Girls Clubs isn’t just about after-school programs, but also forming neighborhood coalitions at all age levels, she said.

“We wrap services around these kids and are really providing hope,” she said. “We are getting to kids early, starting with when babies are born.”

Rose said Boys & Girls Clubs is in the middle of a capital fundraising campaign to build a new 30,000-square-foot facility at Southeast 165th Avenue and Stark Street that will include a full-size gym, kitchen and a much-needed teen center. Rose said the new building should be completed by spring or summer of 2016.

Bemis said a teen center is badly needed because a lot of kids have no place to go and nothing to do in their free time, which can make them more vulnerable to gang influences.

“That’s not acceptable,” he said. “Our kids deserve our best.”

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